"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
A spectral silence hangs over the buildings: a cavernous rust-colored hangar containing heavy industrial plant and piles of tires, a deserted complex once used as a canteen, and an empty, smaller building known as the White House. Underground, there lies a seam of iron ore, which has remained untouched for 12 years since a hurricane of violence blew through this corner of Bosnia. But soon, this place will be teeming again, with the rattle of machinery and the business of its original use as a mine. And the man who has acquired it, who aims to restart the Omarska iron ore mine, is none other than Britain’s richest resident, Lakshmi Mittal, who in October became the biggest steel producer in the world.
But there are ghosts here too: This was the site of the infamous concentration camp of Omarska, operated by the Bosnian Serbs for the internment, torture and mass murder of Muslim and Croat prisoners during the summer of 1992. From that once-crammed hangar, men were called for barbaric execution. In that White House, they were slaughtered by the hundred. Above that canteen, women were serially raped. On an L-shaped strip of concrete land in between, an orgy of killing and torture was unleashed.
Now, survivors of the camp, and relatives of the hundreds killed there, are pleading with Mittal not to reconvert the mine without preserving some installations in commemoration of what happened. But their pleas present Mittal with a potential challenge: His partners in a joint venture to restart iron ore extraction at Omarska and other mines are the Bosnian Serb authorities, whom Mittal — by admission of his own staff — does not want to antagonize. Those same Bosnian Serb authorities have shown little sign of admission, let alone commemoration, of what happened in the camp managed by their countrymen.
A second problem concerns the possibility that bodies remain buried — perhaps even in mass graves — within the three mines in the complex acquired by Mittal, of which Omarska is one. Work has just concluded at one mass grave only two miles from the Omarska site, from which the remains of 420 men murdered in the camp were retrieved. In October 2001, another mass grave containing 353 bodies was found within another mine in the complex bought by Mittal, called Ljubija.
“There is no doubt whatsoever that there are bodies as yet unfound within the mine of Omarska and its vicinity,” said Amor Masovic, president of the Bosnian government’s Commission for Tracing Missing Persons, which exhumes the graves. “We are not talking about dozens of bodies here; we are talking about hundreds.”
In three separate petitions and letters to Mittal, survivors this week pleaded for the premises in which prisoners were killed to be preserved and dedicated for commemoration of the dead, and also for the historical record and in pursuit of reconciliation in Bosnia.
One comes from groups representing camp survivors and relatives of the dead who have returned to the Kozarac neighborhood near Omarska. Sabahudin Garibovic, a spokesman for one of those groups, the Association of Camp Inmates, said: “It is important to mark the Omarska camp to honor the memory of the Bosniaks and Croats imprisoned and killed there, not only for our future but for the future of Bosnia, for the reconciliation process.”
Another comes from a Bosnian diaspora network based in the U.K. and a third from a Dutch-based foundation of survivors, addressed to Mittal at his company headquarters in Rotterdam. “You own a place with a legacy,” it submits. “Although you are not responsible for what happened there, we hope you will look compassionately upon our request so that the past will not be forgotten.”
Mittal made his fortune by buying tired steelworks in the developing world and former Communist countries and turning them round. In late October, he overtook the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, to become Britain’s richest resident. He did this by concluding a $4.5 billion takeover of the U.S. International Steel Group, making his group the first truly global steel empire. Meanwhile, the tycoon oversaw a refinancing of his companies to bring about a vast new entity, Mittal Steel, of which Mittal personally owns 88 percent. “These transactions dramatically change the landscape of the steel industry,” he said at the time.
“He’s the modern Carnegie,” said Robert Jones, editor at the Metal Bulletin trade journal. “He is the industry’s biggest risk-taker, and it has paid off spectacularly so far. He has changed the face of the steel industry.”
Most prominent in the public eye was Mittal’s involvement at the center of a “cash for favors” scandal involving Tony Blair, an acquaintance of his. Two months after Mittal had donated 125,000 pounds to the Labor Party, the prime minister put his authority behind Mittal’s bid to take over the giant Romanian state steelmaker Sidex. He sent a personal letter to the Romanian prime minister, Adrian Nastase, saying that to choose what Blair — wrongly — called a British company would favor Romania’s bid for European Union membership. (Mittal’s empire is registered in the Dutch Antilles tax haven.) Romania’s Foreign Ministry later cited Blair’s letter as having helped the deal go through. In the spring, Mittal again aroused curiosity when, for 70 million pounds, he bought Britain’s most expensive residence, in Kensington Palace Gardens in London.
Now, Mittal wants to restart mining at Omarska, one of three mines in the Ljubija complex, all of which fall within the jurisdiction of the hard-line nationalist Serbian Republic statelet within Bosnia. Mittal bought a 51 percent controlling share in the mining complex on April 30, with 49 percent remaining with the RZR Ljubija company, owned by the Serbian Republic itself.
Mittal committed to investing $40 million in order to develop the mines, in an area badly needing employment. (This year the billionaire also bought a majority share in the steelworks formerly supplied by Omarska’s ore, at Zenica, on the other side of Bosnia’s ethnic divide, in the Muslim-Croat Federation.)
“It is only logical,” said Masovic, “to ask whether concentration camps should be turned into iron ore mines, car parks, shopping centers and so on. They should at least mark Omarska as the place where thousands suffered and hundreds died.” Garibovic said: “The ball is now in Mittal’s court. Will he be the one who will make the concession and let us symbolically mark the place where the atrocities took place?”
Mittal limited his response to the Guardian to a brief statement, which reads: “We are willing to listen carefully to any requests that they may have. We are a significant investor in the area, having acquired both iron ore and steelmaking facilities, and are committed to ensuring a prosperous future for the region.”
Meanwhile, though, another Mittal Steel source familiar with the case told the Guardian: “We are in a very difficult situation. The area is largely populated by Serbs; these are the people we are currently dealing with, and we do not want to do anything to antagonize them.”
Satko Mujagic, of the Dutch-based survivors’ foundation, said: “We want the Serbs who do not know everything that happened to know. That way, we can move forward as communities.”
But Bosnian Serb authorities have consistently argued that stories of atrocities in Omarska are unfounded, or else refuse to discuss them. Security guards at the mine told the Guardian: “There was no camp here. It was all Muslim lies.” The director of the Ljubija mining enterprise, Ranko Cvijic, did not return the Guardian’s calls. Nor did the Bosnian Serb official overseeing privatization, Zoran Dosan, whose assistant said inquiries about atrocities were “not relevant.” However, the horrors of Omarska are well documented, not least by judges’ rulings in successive trials at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
In 2002, the Bosnian Serb president, Biljana Plavsic, submitted a rare plea of guilty to an indictment describing atrocities in Omarska as part of a wholesale program of persecution. A year earlier, an entire trial was devoted to Omarska and two other camps, resulting in the conviction of four men. In their findings of fact, the judges said: “The chamber is convinced that hundreds of detainees were killed or disappeared in the Omarska camp between May and August” 1992.
They described a hellish place in which “extreme brutality was systematic,” where “dead bodies were left to fester for days at a time and a terrible stench and fear pervaded the camp.” The judges found “a regular stream of murders, torture and other forms of physical and mental violence” and “unbearable conditions [which] appear to have driven the detainees insane.” Killings were usually by shooting, beating or cutting of throats, although on one night of frenzied killing, prisoners were incinerated on a pyre of burning tires. On another occasion, “the corpses were so numerous, they covered some 50 or 70 meters.”
“What matters,” said Edin Kararic, a survivor of the camp who now lives in Watford, Hertfordshire, U.K., and works as a tanker driver, “is that the memory of what happened in Omarska not be allowed to disappear. That there must be something to say ‘this happened,’ and this was the place. Something to which we can go each year, to show the children, lay flowers. Something that future generations can learn from, so that it does not happen again.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)